The problem of attribution

The era of Facebook memes bearing quotes, to say nothing of the siloing and compartmentalization of views experienced in online life, has led me into a minor quandary, and I want to get my thoughts out on the matter, for your consideration and potential feedback.

I am a great fan of the idea of intellectual property, being, as I am, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction.  The writer has the right to what he or she writes, just as any artist has for his her or works of art, and musicians have to their music.  I think most people agree that it’s unethical—and certainly it is illegal—to use another person’s created work against his or her wishes, especially if one is making money by doing so.  Even works in the public domain—including those that were written so long ago as to be considered ancient, such as the works of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles—shouldn’t be reproduced in whole without giving credit to the author.  We should remind ourselves of the source of such works, and give credit to the memory of those who have written words that we found moving; certainly, we must give credit to the creators who are still living, especially if we are going to make money in the process.  We should also, in the latter case, get permission, and usually we should pay them.

At a smaller scale, we often find ourselves quoting the words of great, and even not-so-great, thinkers, when those words move us, or seem appropriate to a certain situation.  Often one encounters a sentence or paragraph that seems to express one’s own thoughts or emotions better than one ever could oneself, or that generates new thoughts, reveals a different way of looking at some subject, that may crystallize our own reckoning, or may even change our minds.  It’s natural to want to share these sentences, or paragraphs, or poems, and it’s just as natural, and generally right, to credit the quote.

Sometimes, though, particularly in areas where there is controversy, I think that crediting does a disservice, and can even interfere with the reasoned consideration of a thought.  Here we fall prey to the evil dichotomy that consists of the “argument from authority” and the “ad hominem” fallacies, two sides of the same coin of failure to reason properly.  This gets in our way in a particularly striking fashion on social media, though it is by no means confined to it.

If I were to post a political quote about some thorny issue—or even, perhaps about an innocuous one—its reception would be highly influenced by whether it was attributed to Bernie Sanders, say, or Donald Trump.  If the first, many self-described liberals would at least evaluate it and give it credence.  Some would accept it uncritically.  Those on the other end of the political spectrum might dismiss it out of hand without even reading it, and would even be far less likely to see it, given the nature of Facebook’s news-feed algorithms.  If it were credited to Donald Trump, then the converse reaction would likely be seen.

Yet, it might be the very same quote.  I’m certain that, if I were to mine all the spoken and written words attributed to both men, I could find quite a few thoughts which would be almost identical, or which at least conveyed the same point of view.  We are, after all, much more like than unlike, despite political and ideological differences.  We are human, and many of our concerns are all but universal.

The above is a slightly extreme, and imaginary, example, but I think it demonstrates the point with which I am concerned:  When one is trafficking in ideas, it’s the ideas themselves that are important, not who produced them.  Unfortunately, there are times when, in a desire to give due credit to someone who produced an idea, or expressed it very well, we poison the honesty of intellectual discourse.  We may be quoting some especially respected individual, in the hope that the fact of their authorship will lead others to consider a notion which they might otherwise have dismissed.  This is understandable, and can be useful as a rhetorical technique, and occasionally even as a rational way of getting someone to think differently.  Quoting Jesus’s imperatives about selling all that you own and giving it to the poor might just make an avaricious person who considers himself a devout Christian rethink his life.  But often, I think, quoting the noteworthy and respected is just a way of trying to support our own ideas using the argument from authority, rather than giving adequate evidence and argument.  Again, it can work as a rhetorical device, but it isn’t a good route to actual truth and intellectual consideration.

Similarly, the dismissal of ideas because of the identity of the person to whom they’re attributed is just an example of the ad hominem fallacy, and is poor reasoning.  Hitler drank very little alcohol and despised smoking, and Goebbels loved dogs, but clearly this fact should not lead us to consider abstinence from booze and tobacco to be moral failings, or to decry canophiles as Nazi propagandists.

One of the areas in which this problem becomes particularly striking for me is in the works and words of Ayn Rand.  Now, I happen to like her big novels, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” quite a lot.  But merely by writing this fact, I will trigger intellectual resistance in a certain type of person—often even those who are only mildly left-leaning have automatic and unthinking contempt for Ms. Rand’s fans (though I cannot deny that contempt is sometimes merited).  Similarly, there are those among the more dogmatic acolytes of Objectivism who will assume that anything related to Ms. Rand has the imprimatur of authority, that she was the wisest and most intelligent of all people, that she was almost incapable of error, and that anyone who likes her work must be intelligent as well.

All of this, on both sides, is failure of reason.  It is, however, a problem toward which humans seem especially prone, which is lamentable, but not too surprising; as primates, we tend to think in terms of social hierarchies, authority structures, and status-seeking through proximity to power.  But just because a thing is innate doesn’t make it good, and if we want to find truth in the world, and to increase, however incrementally, our rational basis for our thoughts, we have to resist those tendencies.  Social media, unfortunately, because of the way its ad-driven economy drives people to see things with which they most resonate already, tend to reinforce the effects of that two-headed horror, ad hominem/argument from authority.

I really do think it’s important to give credit where credit is due, though.  If I’m quoting a work, or an author who put something particularly well, especially if I’m trying to make others think by doing so, then it would be intellectually dishonest for me to present the quote as if it were my own.  If I can take the ideas and present them in my own words, that’s fine and dandy, and I’m happy to do so.  I think the best demonstration—and test—of one’s grasp of a notion is how well you can convey it to others de novo.  But sometimes a quote is just so perfect—or so amusing—that it’s a shame not to use it.  Einstein’s statement about two things being infinite, the universe and human stupidity, is just too good not to use.  In this case, the attribution probably serves to give weight to the quote, since Einstein knew a thing or two about both subjects, but it’s not a quote on a subject of immediate importance.  It’s just a bit funny, and poignant because it causes us to reflect on and lament our limitations.

In some discussions, though, where the very subject itself arouses great emotions (which are so often inimical to clarity of thought), the very act of attribution can sabotage one’s attempt to make a point.  If you quote Ayn Rand on human morality, for instance, you will find that some in your audience will dismiss the words—and you—out of hand.  Others will take a “Testify, brother,” attitude that is also unwarranted.  Yet, Ms. Rand did write and say some things that are probably not going to get much argument from the majority of well-meaning people, whether fans or detractors of her work.  For instance:  “So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiaite—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.”  The idea is simple, though it’s application in the real world can be complicated and nuanced, but it’s hard to argue that it’s simply wrong.

So, given the problems I’ve been exploring, I’ve occasionally found myself putting quotes up on Facebook and/or Twitter without attribution, especially when it’s an idea I want people to think about without cluttering their minds with preconceptions.  It’s not my natural inclination, but it’s something that I think is necessary given our apish inclinations, especially when important and potentially consequential ideas are being discussed.  It may even, occasionally, amount to a bit of mental judo, getting someone to change his or her pre-conceived prejudices about a particular thinker.  Perhaps someone will read an unattributed quote, find it moving and powerful, and then ask, “Who said that?” without knowing that it was someone they presumptively revile.  When they learn the source only after knowing the content, they may rethink their own biases, and this is almost always a good thing.

With that in mind, in closing, I’m going to give you a quote from one of my favorite thinkers, on the subject of free will.

“You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it.  You are the storm.”

Powerful, evocative, and pithy, these sentences struck me forcefully upon my first reading, and they continue to do so.  I’m not, however, going to attribute them, because their author is one who occasionally polarizes even well-meaning people of no mean intelligence.  I think it’s more important to know what is said than who said it, especially when ideas of consequence are being discussed.

It’s the message that matters, not the messenger.  You may quote me.

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